Secret Teaching Assistant: We end up hindering the pupils we're meant to help
“Who are you here to support?”
It’s a question I dread. As a higher level teaching assistant, I work with some of our school’s most vulnerable pupils and such questions can mark them out as “different” as soon as I enter the classroom.
I originally planned to have career in teaching, but I soon realised the benefits of working as a teaching assistant (TA). Granted, the pay leaves a lot to be desired, but we are privileged to be able to develop close, supportive relationships with the pupils who need it most. We improve self-esteem and confidence, as well as progress. But I worry that we are at risk of developing an over-reliance from a group of pupils for whom independence is already an issue.
After 15 years in this job, I have worked with a lot of teachers. The approaches to classroom support are varied; many integrate me into their lessons, but others rely on me to police their classes or, worse, ignore me completely.
One thing is always the same – kids with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) are always my responsibility. And they know it. As soon as the teacher finishes talking, I hear a chorus of “Miss! Miss! Miss!”, with hands raised before any thought process has taken place. I always encourage a “try it yourself first” attitude, but this is often met with the blank expression of a child who has learned that someone will eventually do it for them.
TAs are often directed towards the weakest or most vulnerable students and expected to keep them focused and engaged. In some circumstances, we will work with one student for the entire lesson. This might reduce pressure on the teacher, but the resulting attachment to the TA does nothing to develop the students’ academic or social skills. All too often, TAs can fall into the trap of becoming surrogate friends for vulnerable young people, who then become ostracised from their peers as a result.
Classroom pressures only exacerbate the issue, as the need to complete tasks weighs on everyone. For some students with special educational needs, their learning difficulties and reduced processing skills can make finishing a task almost impossible. This leads to a demoralising situation where they are either left behind or never fully understand anything because they are always playing catch-up. In order to alleviate this problem, TAs may start prompting too much in order to get the job done, rather than encouraging independent learning and true understanding.
Even in students’ free time, we still can’t seem to get it right. Provisions, such as break and lunch clubs, are frequently provided for those who find social interaction difficult, or are at risk of being bullied. Sadly, this can go against the core principles of inclusive education and segregate those with SEND from other students.
We should be developing resilience, confidence and friendship skills to prepare students for the real world beyond school. However, we can end up reinforcing the idea that these students cannot cope and need to be protected from the perceived dangers of life.
Dependency can be even more of a problem when working with students with physical disabilities. Many buildings in mainstream schools are still not really accessible, which can leave students completely reliant on a member of staff to assist in simply negotiating the school environment.
The lack of automatic doors, for example, causes dependence on others for the basic task of moving from class to class. In the hustle and bustle of a school day, it’s easy for this support to be extended to a range of activities, such as getting out equipment, which the student may be more than capable of achieving on their own.
I am usually wary of changes within the education system, but I have welcomed the updated SEND Code of Practice as it finally addresses these issues. The focus on quality-first teaching should ensure that all students receive the same level of education from trained teachers, leaving support staff to reinforce learning, rather than deliver it.
However, for this to really happen, there needs to be a change in attitude. Teachers have become used to attaching TAs to pupils as a solution to differentiation, pupils have developed a reliance on this close support, and TAs have become comfortable over-supporting students.
Instead of being glued to students who have a learning need, TAs must be employed more effectively to deliver targeted interventions based on progress and attainment. Support staff have to be valued as skilled professionals with specific specialisms, instead of babysitters.